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As My Bloody Valentine add their lauded back catalogue to streaming services, and hint at the prospect of new music, Kevin Shields describes the fascinations and inventions that gave the band their sound. By Anwen Crawford.

My Bloody Valentine

My Bloody Valentine (from left) Kevin Shields, Colm Ó Cíosóig, Bilinda Butcher and Debbie Googe.
Credit: Steve Gullick

“The truth is it’s nearly like performance art,” says Kevin Shields, describing how it feels to play live with his band My Bloody Valentine – a band that has existed, on and off, for almost 40 years. “You could say, ‘It represents the struggle between the fragile human and the machines we’ve created.’ ”

On the side of the fragile human: Shields, guitarist and vocalist, the band’s nerve centre. He co-founded My Bloody Valentine in 1983, in Dublin, with his teenage friend, drummer Colm Ó Cíosóig.

After a few false starts, My Bloody Valentine released their debut album, Isn’t Anything, in 1988. It remains a baffling record, and I mean that in a good way, arid and vaporous, sharp and muffled, dreamy and vicious all at once. Isn’t Anything melded the band’s major influences, early hip-hop (“That music was a huge inspiration to me,” Shields says; “very dry, very upfront”) and contemporary American guitar bands that emerged in the wake of punk but who made music that was looser and more impish than punk allowed. “It had a melodic quality that I really loved,” Shields says, of the work of groups such as Sonic Youth, Hüsker Dü and Dinosaur Jr in the mid-1980s. To these upstart influences, My Bloody Valentine wedded a drowsy atmosphere that was all their own.

There quickly followed a series of EPs, later collected as EP’s 1988-1991, and recently remastered by Shields, along with the band’s three albums. These EPs expanded upon Isn’t Anything’s languorous-yet-savage mood, and highlighted the interaction between Shields and his co-guitarist, co-vocalist and co-lyricist Bilinda Butcher, who had joined the group in 1987. Together they create sweet and soporific vocal harmonies, around which they bend layers of instrumental noise. Think of chamomile growing in a field of thorns – or listen to “Thorn”, from the 1988 EP You Made Me Realise, which would be a gentle, jangly pop track if it weren’t pierced through by a keening guitar that resembles a power drill crossed with a whale’s song.

Ó Cíosóig and bassist Debbie Googe complete the flesh-and-blood(y) quartet: “We’re fortunate because Colm and I learnt [to play] together from scratch,” Shields observes. “And then Debbie’s very attuned, she’s very tuned into Colm. They become this unit.”

By the late 1980s, My Bloody Valentine were gathering a reputation for being the loudest band in London, where they lived, or possibly the loudest band on Earth. Shields’ not-so-secret weapon, along with volume, is the tremolo arm on his Fender electric guitar, an almost accidental discovery from around the time the group recorded “Thorn”. “I was pretty good at rhythm,” Shields says, of his playing style, and the tremolo arm, also known as a whammy bar, enabled him to manipulate the guitar’s string tension, which bends the instrument’s pitch, simultaneously with his rhythmic strumming. It was the kind of musical accident, Shields remarks, “that’s more like you’ve collected a lot of ingredients already, and the last one finally comes into play”.

Tremolo wasn’t a new idea in music, but Shields – and Butcher – took it further than anyone had done before, creating a gloopy, coursing sound that is constantly on the verge of decomposition. The title of My Bloody Valentine’s 1990 EP, Glider, says it all. This is music inside which a listener can never find sure footing. But if you’re willing to surrender to its overwhelm, it’s like nothing else you’ll ever hear.

In this struggle between human and machine, the machines – drums, bass and guitar – appear modest, even old-fashioned. At heart, My Bloody Valentine are still indie kids futzing about in their garage. They just managed to invent, sometime between the late 1980s and the early 1990s, a kind of guitar music, ecstatic and aqueous, that appeared as a transmission from a brighter future – one that has yet to arrive. Add effects pedals (heaps of them), then amplifiers (walls of them). Turn everything to maximum volume; use all the machines at once. “If someone else plugged into my guitar rig it would just sound like a mess, it would just feed back,” says Shields. “It’s the way you play it and control it that becomes the thing.”

You could say encountering My Bloody Valentine live is akin to being crouched inside the engine of a jet plane – or at least that’s what I thought while watching them in 2009, in Barcelona, shortly after they’d emerged from a decade-long hiatus. It’s wasn’t unpleasant, quite the opposite: I don’t ever think I’ve grinned so hard, or for so long, at a live show. The sheer extremity of their sound and the specific range of frequencies made my spine feel as if it had been elasticised, my skin lit from within. It was absurd and transcendent; the band is also adamant about distributing earplugs to anyone who comes to see them play. “I hate the idea of actually damaging someone’s hearing, it’s sickening to be honest,” Shields says, “because I know what it feels like: I’ve got tinnitus and I wouldn’t wish it on anybody.”

Shields is fascinated by all sorts of questions of transmission: how we hear, what we hear, and under what circumstances. I ask if he’s the kind of person who hears music in everyday patterns of sound, such as car traffic or appliances, particularly because his reputation for sonic obsessiveness precedes him: it’s practically an obligation at this point to mention the possibly apocryphal story of My Bloody Valentine bankrupting Creation Records, their independent label, during the protracted making of their landmark 1991 album, Loveless.

This leads him to a digressive – Shields is nothing if not digressive – explanation of the fact that he hears melodies in his head, constantly, melodies that remind him of “circus, fairground music”, which reminds him in turn of his childhood memories of overhearing incidental music from the television, from another room. He also links his discovery of tremolo guitar to the degraded physical quality of television footage that he saw as a kid: Jimi Hendrix setting his guitar alight at the 1967 Monterey Pop Festival, or the Sex Pistols playing a show on a Thames river boat. “The footage that was going around for years was really wobbly,” he says of the latter. “That’s why when I first hit upon the tremolo, I was like, ‘Oh my god, this is the thing.’ ” In other words, the liquid expressiveness of My Bloody Valentine is as much an attempt to reckon with the instability of memory as to create the future. Not for nothing has Loveless been described as returning a listener to “the childhood origins of longing”.

Loveless brought the hallucinogenic energy of London’s dance clubs to the staid world of indie rock, thanks in no small part to Colm Ó Cíosóig’s facility with drum samples and loops, through which the rest of the group threaded their face-melting guitar frequencies. Many of the guitar sounds on the album were also samples that were first played live, then fed back into the mix, the band creating a hall-of-mirrors version of their sound that mimicked the dense, womb-like atmosphere of acid house clubs and early rave music, and their attendant euphoria.

“In terms of the clubs,” Shields recalls, “it was hugely influential because of the fact that the sound was so powerful. It was a feeling of total immersion, and of course ecstasy was a big thing: everyone was experiencing the phenomenon of having a sense of empathy with everyone in the room.”

Now that My Bloody Valentine’s back catalogue has recently been released onto digital streaming platforms for the first time, Shields is surprisingly relaxed about the fact that listeners, especially new listeners, might encounter it in ways that fall short of the “life-changing experience” of those clubs, or of one of the band’s live shows, where a frail human being is pitted against 130 decibels of sound. “There’s no such thing as a standard human with standard hearing, and there’s no such thing as standard audio that plays everything back sounding more or less the same,” he says, equably, and to that end, he’s not bothered by people hearing records such as Loveless on their smartphones.

“I do think that if someone’s into music, it’s worth getting some equipment so that you can hear it better. It’s really worth it. But the whole time we were making Isn’t Anything, I lived in squats, I didn’t have a hi-fi. It was only during the Loveless era that I got a hi-fi; by the time we finished Loveless I had a miniature version of the [recording] studio in my house. But when we made Isn’t Anything I was still in my ghetto-blaster phase.”

That was how Shields first heard the music of hip-hop groups such as Public Enemy and De La Soul, in the ’80s: on cheap, portable cassette decks. The mid-range punch and vitality of their sound – especially Public Enemy, whose barrage of samples and noises was the sonic complement to their political urgency – convinced Shields of the need for guitar groups such as his own to catch up.

“The energy was amazing, the sounds were amazing, the production was amazing,” Shields says. “I was really blown away by it, and it seemed impossible to me, with that kind of music around, to not try and make music with the same kind of impact.”

With Loveless positioning them as the most forward-thinking guitar band around, the ones who were digging through the latest rap 12-inches and lining up for club nights, you might assume My Bloody Valentine would have made the 1990s their own, given the long ascendancy of both rap and dance music throughout that decade. But it was not to be. Their influence was everywhere on a Anglocentric, effects-pedals-obsessed guitar scene known as shoegaze, which Shields is still keen to distinguish himself from (“In my mind, everything we did was completely different”), but the band itself was hardly to be found.

In the wake of Loveless, they custom-built a recording studio, and then Shields spent years trying to fix various technical problems he found with it. They left Creation Records and signed to Island Records for a hefty advance, but never finished the album they had promised. A series of legal disputes with Island ensued, which led to Shields leaving the band – he was practically the only member left by this point, anyway – in order to free himself from the label. Meanwhile, the group’s catalogue, now out of print, rose in both esteem and resale value: original vinyl pressings of Loveless change hands for several hundred pounds apiece, a situation Shields describes as “ridiculous”. Having eventually given all of their own copies away, the band had to buy their own records back when Shields began to remaster them, first in 2012, and now again in 2021. Did the second-hand vendors know they were selling My Bloody Valentine records to one Kevin Shields? “No, no,” he says with a laugh.

A third studio album, mbv, was self-released through the band’s website in 2013. Now they’ve signed to Domino, with the tantalising prospect of new material to come, but, as Shields acknowledges, ruefully, “if there’s one piece of wisdom I’ve gained in my life, it’s that I know shit about timing”. What might seem an aeon to other bands – 22 years between a second and third album – is to Shields mere water under the bridge in his pursuit to translate the sounds he hears onto acetate. “If I can’t get something perfect, I’ll just do it twice,” he declares, in reference to his two remasters of Loveless, one all-analog, one part-digital, and the comment should stand as a warning to anyone holding their breath for a new My Bloody Valentine album.

The band will, as ever, go their own way, at their own pace. “Sometimes it’s ridiculous,” says Shields. “It’s like, ‘Why are we even trying to do this? It’s impossible.’ ” I can practically hear him smiling down the phone. “But we do.”

This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on May 29, 2021 as "Liquid expression".

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Anwen Crawford is The Monthly’s music critic. Her latest book is No Document.